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Graham, Lynne Billionaires Brides 02 Greek Tycoon S Defiant Bride


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Graham, Lynne Billionaires Brides 02 Greek Tycoon S Defiant Bride

  2. 2. CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ONE WHEN the limousine appeared, a perceptible wave of anticipation rippled through the well-dressed cliques of people gathered on the church steps. Two cars had already drawn up in an advance guard, from which muscular men wearing dark glasses and talking into walkie- talkies had emerged to fan out in a protective cordon. At a signal from the security team the chauffeur finally approached the passenger door of the limo. The buzz in the air intensified, heads craning for a better view, eyes avid with curiosity. Leonidas Pallis stepped out onto the pavement and immediately commanded universal attention. A Greek tycoon to his polished fingertips, he stood six feet three inches tall. A staggeringly handsome man, he wore a black cashmere overcoat and a designer suit with an elegance that was lethally sexy. That cutting-edge sophistication, however, was matched by a cold-blooded reserve and ruthlessness that made people very nervous. Born into one of the richest families in the world and to parents whose decadence was legendary, Leonidas had established a wild reputation at an early age. But no Pallis in living memory had displayed his extraordinary brilliance in business. A billionaire many times over, he was the golden idol of the Pallis clan and as much feared as he was fêted. Everyone had wondered if he would bother to attend the memorial service. After all, just over two years had passed since Imogen Stratton had died in a drug-fuelled car crash. Although she had not been involved with Leonidas at the time, she had enjoyed an on-off
  3. 3. association with him since he’d been at university. Imogen’s mother, Hermione, swam forward to greet her most important guest with gushing satisfaction, for the presence of Leonidas Pallis turned the event into a social occasion worthy of comment. But the Greek billionaire cut the social pleasantries to a minimum—the Strattons were virtual strangers. While Imogen was alive he had neither met them nor wished to meet them and he did not have an appetite for fawning flattery. Ironically the one person he had expected to greet him at the church, his only surviving acquaintance in the Stratton family circle, had yet to show her face: Imogen’s cousin, Maribel Greenaway. Refusing an invitation to join the front pew line-up, Leonidas chose a much less prominent seat and sank down into it with the fluid grace of a panther. As quickly, he wondered why he had come when Imogen had despised such conventions. She had revelled in her fame as a fashion model and party girl. Living to be noticed and admired, Imogen had loved to shock even more. Yet she had worked hard at pleasing him until her absorption in drugs had concluded his interest in her. His hard-sculpted mouth flattened. Ultimately, he had cut her out of his life. Attending her funeral had presented a challenge and the fallout from that rare inner conflict had been explosive. The past was past, however, and like regret, not a place Leonidas had ever been known to visit. Maribel nosed her elderly car into the parking space. She was horribly late and in a fierce hurry. At speed she re-angled the driving mirror and, with a brush in one hand and a clip gripped between her teeth, attempted to put her hair up. Newly washed and still damp, the shoulder-length fall of chestnut was rebellious. When the clip broke between her impatient fingers she could’ve wept with frustration. Throwing the brush aside, she smoothed her hair down with frantic fingers while simultaneously attempting to get out of the car. From the minute she’d got up that morning everything had gone wrong. Or perhaps the endless line of mini-disasters had begun the night before, when her aunt Hermione had phoned to say dulcetly that she would quite understand if Maribel found it too difficult to attend the memorial service.
  4. 4. Maribel had winced, gritted her teeth at that news and said nothing. Over the past eighteen months her relatives had made it clear that she was now persona non grata as far as they were concerned. That had hurt, since Maribel cherished what family connections she had left. Even so, she fully understood their reservations. Not only had she never fitted the Stratton family mould, but she had also broken the rules of acceptance. Her aunt and uncle set great store on looks, money and social status. Appearances were hugely important to them. Nevertheless, when Maribel had been orphaned, her mother’s brother had immediately offered his eleven-year-old niece a home with his own three children. In the image-conscious Stratton household Maribel had had to learn how to melt into the background, where her failings in the beauty, size and grace stakes would awaken less censure and irritation. Those years would have been bleak, had they not been enlivened by Imogen’s effervescent sense of fun. Although Imogen and Maribel had had not the slightest thing in common, Maribel had become deeply attached to the cousin who was three years her senior. That was the main reason why Maribel was determined that nothing should be allowed to interfere with her sincere need to attend the service and pay her last respects. Nothing, she reminded herself doggedly, not even a powerful level of personal discomfiture. That sense of unease exasperated her. Over two years had gone by. She had no business still being so sensitive—he didn’t have a sensitive bone in his body. Her violet-blue eyes took on a militant sparkle and her chin came up. She was twenty- seven years old. She had a doctorate and she was a university tutor in the ancient history department of the university. She was intelligent, level-headed and practical. She liked men as friends or colleagues, but had reached the conclusion that they were far too much hassle in any closer capacity. After the appalling upheaval and the grieving process that she had had to work through in the wake of Imogen’s sudden death, Maribel had finally found contentment. She liked her life. She liked her life very much. Why should she even care about what he might think? He had probably never thought about her again.
  5. 5. In that mood, she mounted the church steps and took the first available seat near the back of the nave. She focused on the service, looking neither right nor left while her sixth sense fingered down her taut spine and her skin prickled. Self-conscious pink began to blossom in her cheeks. He was present. She knew he was present and didn’t know how. When she couldn’t withstand temptation any longer, she glanced up and saw him several rows ahead on the other side of the aisle. The Pallis height and build were unmistakable, as was the angle of his arrogant dark head and the fact that at least three extremely attractive females had contrived to seat themselves within easy reach of him. Involuntarily she was amused. Had Leonidas been a rare animal, he would long ago have been hunted to extinction. As it was, he was dazzlingly handsome, totally untamed and a notorious womaniser. He mesmerised her sex into bad behaviour. No doubt the women hovering near him now would attempt to chat him up before the end of the service. Without warning, Leonidas turned his head and surveyed her, the onslaught of his brilliant dark deep-set eyes striking her much like a bullet suddenly slamming into tender flesh. Her fight-or-flight response went into overdrive. Caught unawares and looking when she would have given almost anything to appear totally impervious to his existence, Maribel froze. Like a fish snared by a hook and left dangling, she felt horribly trapped. Mustering her self-discipline and her manners, she managed to give him a slight wooden nod of polite acknowledgement and returned her attention to the order of service in her hands. The booklet trembled in her grasp. She breathed in slow and deep and steadied her hold, fighting the riptide of memory threatening to blow a dangerous hole in her defences. The glamorous blonde who slid into the pew beside her provided a welcome diversion. Hanna had belonged to the same modelling agency as Imogen. Indifferent to the fact that the vicar was speaking, Hanna lamented at length about the traffic that had led to her late arrival and then took out a mirror to twitch her hair into place. ‘Will you introduce me to Leonidas Pallis?’ Hanna stage-whispered as she renewed her lip gloss. ‘I mean, you’ve known him for ever.’
  6. 6. Maribel continued to focus her attention on the service. She could not credit that once again a woman was trying to use her to get to Leonidas and she was quick to dismiss the idea that she could ever have been deemed an acquaintance of his. ‘But not in the way you mean.’ ‘Yeah, you were like living as Imogen’s housekeeper or whatever in those days, but he must still remember you. Have you any idea how rare that is? Very few people can claim any sort of a connection with Leonidas Pallis!’ Maribel said nothing. Her throat felt as if a lump of hysteria were wedged at the foot of it and she was not the sort of woman who threw hysterical fits. It was ironic that she could only think about Imogen, who had set her heart on a man she could not have, a man who would never care enough to give her the stability she had so desperately needed. Sometimes it had been very hard for Maribel to mind her own business while she had lived on the sidelines of her cousin’s life, forced to witness her every mistake. The discovery that she herself was equally capable of blind stupidity had been hugely humiliating and not a lesson she was likely to forget in a hurry. Hanna was impervious to the hint that silence might be welcome, adding, ‘I just thought that if you introduced me, it would look more casual and less staged.’ Casual? Hanna was wearing a candy-pink suit so tight and so short she could barely sit in it. The feathery hat-confection in her long, streaming blonde hair was overkill and would have been more appropriate at a wedding. ‘Please…please…please. He is so absolutely delicious in the flesh,’ the other woman crooned pleadingly in Maribel’s ear. And a total, absolute bastard, Maribel reflected helplessly, only to be very much shocked by such a thought occurring to her in church and on such a serious occasion. Face colouring with shame, she cleansed her mind of that angry, bitter thought.
  7. 7. Leonidas had decided to be amused by that stony little nod from Maribel. The only woman he had ever met who refused to be impressed by him. A challenge he had been unable to resist, he acknowledged. His heavily lidded dark gaze roamed at an indolent pace over her, noting the changes with earthy masculine appreciation. Maribel had slimmed down, the better to show off the abundant swell of her full breasts and the voluptuous curve of her hips. The spring sunlight arrowing though a stained glass window far above glinted over hair the colour of maple syrup, skin like clotted cream and a generous mouth. Not beautiful, not even pretty, yet for some reason she had always contrived to grab his attention. Only this time he believed that he could finally understand why he was looking: she had the vibrant, sensual glow of a sun- ripened peach. He wondered if he was responsible for awakening that feminine awareness. Just as quickly, he wondered if he could seduce her into a repeat performance. And, on that one lingering look and that one manipulative thought, his slumbering libido roused to volcanic strength and sharpened his interest. As the service drew to a close Maribel was keen to melt back out of the church in a departure as quiet as her arrival. That urge intensified when she noted the immediate surge up the aisle by her aunt and cousins, who were clearly determined to intercept Leonidas before he could leave. Unfortunately, Maribel’s passage was blocked by Hanna. ‘Why are you in such a hurry?’ Hanna hissed, when Maribel attempted to ease past her stationary figure. ‘Leonidas was looking in this direction. He’s already noticed me. I asked you for such a tiny favour.’ ‘Someone as beautiful as you doesn’t need an introduction,’ Maribel whispered in sheer desperation. Hanna laughed and preened. With a toss of her rippling golden tresses, she sashayed out into the aisle like a guided missile ready to lock onto a target. Several inches shorter, Maribel used the blonde as cover and ducked out in her wake to speed for the exit like a
  8. 8. lemming rushing at a cliff. It wasn’t cool to be so keen to avoid Leonidas, but so what? Mindful of the reality that her aunt no longer wished to acknowledge her as a member of the family, Maribel knew that it was her duty to embrace a low profile. In her haste, however, she cannoned into the photographer lying in wait beyond the doors. Wondering why she was spluttering an apology when the man was assailing her with furious abuse, Maribel rubbed the shoulder that had been bruised by the collision and hurried on out and back to the car park. Unreceptive to the many opposing attempts to gain his attention, Leonidas strode out to the church porch. He was thoroughly intrigued by the mode and speed of his quarry’s flight, because Maribel was, as a rule, wonderfully well mannered and conservative. He had expected her to hover unwillingly out of politeness and speak to him. But she had not even paused to converse with the Strattons. While his protection team prevented the lurking paparazzo from snatching a photo of him, he watched Maribel approaching a little red car. For a small woman, she moved fast. Lazily, he wondered if she was the only female who had ever run away from him. Exasperated, he inclined his handsome dark head to summon Vasos, his head of security, to his side and gave him a concise command. As Hermione Stratton, closely followed by her two daughters, surged to a breathless halt by his side, Leonidas spoke conventional words of regret before murmuring in his dark, deep voice, ‘Why did Maribel rush off?’ ‘Maribel?’ The older woman opened her eyes very wide and repeated the name as if she had never heard of her niece. ‘Probably racing home to that baby of hers,’ the tallest, blondest daughter opined with more than a touch of derision. Although not an ounce of his surprise showed on his lean bronzed features, Leonidas was stunned by that careless statement. Maribel had a baby? A baby? Since when? And by whom?
  9. 9. Hermione Stratton pursed her mouth into a little moue of well-bred distaste. ‘I’m afraid that she’s a single parent.’ ‘And not in the fashionable category. She was left in the lurch,’ her daughter chipped in, smiling brightly at Leonidas. ‘Typical,’ her sister giggled, rolling inviting big blue eyes up at him. ‘Even with all those brains, Maribel still made the biggest mistake in the book!’ Five minutes after leaving the church, Maribel pulled off the road again to shed her black knitted jacket because she was overheating like mad. An attack of nerves always made her hot. Inside her head was an uninvited image of how Leonidas had looked in church. Breathtakingly beautiful. What else had she expected? He was still only thirty-one years old. Her hands clenched round the steering wheel. For a tiny moment, while she allowed her emotions to gain the upper hand, her knuckles showed white. Then slowly, deliberately, she relaxed her grip. She refused to concede that she had experienced any kind of emotional reaction and concentrated instead on being thoroughly irritated by her foolish and trite reflection regarding Leonidas’ good looks. After all, shouldn’t she have moved far beyond such juvenile ruminations by now? Her rebellious mind served up painful memories and she gritted her teeth and literally kicked those thoughts back out of her head again. She slammed shut the equivalent of a mental steel door on recollections that would only stir up the feelings she was determined to keep buried. Clasping her seat belt again, she drove off to pick up her son. Ginny Bell, her friend and childminder, lived in a cottage only a field away from Maribel’s home. The older woman was a widow and a former teacher currently studying part- time for a master’s degree. Slim and in her forties, with her black hair in a bob, she glanced up in surprise when Maribel appeared at her back door. ‘My goodness, I wasn’t expecting you back so soon!’
  10. 10. Elias abandoned his puzzle and hurtled across the kitchen to greet his mother. He was sixteen months old, an enchanting toddler with curly black hair and tobacco brown eyes. All the natural warmth and energy of his temperament shone in his smile and the exuberance with which he returned his mother’s hug. Maribel drank in the familiar baby scent of his skin and was engulfed by a giant wave of love. Only after Elias’s birth had she truly understood the intensity of a mother’s attachment to her child. She had revelled in the year of maternity leave she’d taken to be with her baby. Returning to work even on a part-time basis had been a real challenge for her, and now she was never away from Elias for longer than a couple of hours without eagerly looking forward to the moment when she would get back to him again. Without even trying, Elias had become the very centre of her world. Still puzzled by Maribel’s swift return, Ginny was frowning. ‘I thought your aunt and uncle were hosting a fancy buffet lunch after the service.’ Maribel briefly shared the content of her aunt’s phone call the night before. ‘My goodness, how can Hermione Stratton exclude you like that?’ Ginny exclaimed, angrily defensive on the younger woman’s behalf because, as a long-standing friend, she knew how much the Strattons owed to Maribel, who had loyally watched over Imogen while the model’s family had given their daughter and her increasingly erratic and embarrassing behaviour a wide berth. ‘Well, I blotted my copybook by having Elias and I can’t say that I wasn’t warned about how it would be,’ Maribel countered with wry acceptance. ‘When your aunt urged you to have a termination because she saw your pregnancy as a social embarrassment, she was going way beyond her remit. You had already told her that you wanted your baby and you’re scarcely a feckless teenager,’ Ginny reminded the younger woman with feeling. ‘As for her suggestion that you wouldn’t be able to cope, you’re one of the most capable mothers I know!’
  11. 11. Maribel gave her a rueful look. ‘I expect my aunt gave her advice in good faith. And to be fair—when Hermione was a girl it was a disgrace for a child to be born out of wedlock.’ ‘Why are you so magnanimous? That woman has always treated you like a Victorian poor relation!’ ‘It wasn’t as bad as that. My aunt and uncle found it hard to understand my academic aspirations.’ Maribel moved her hands in a dismissive gesture. ‘I was the oddball of the family and just too different from my cousins.’ ‘They put a lot of pressure on you to conform.’ ‘But even more on Imogen,’ Maribel declared, thinking of her fragile cousin, who had craved approval and admiration to such a degree that she had been able to handle neither rejection nor failure. Elias squirmed to get down from his mother’s lap so that he could investigate the arrival of the postman’s van. He was a lively child with a mind that teemed with curiosity about the world that surrounded him. While Ginny went to the door to collect a parcel, Maribel gathered up all the paraphernalia that went with transporting a toddler between different houses. ‘Can’t you stay for coffee?’ Ginny asked on her return. ‘I’m sorry. I’d love to, but I’ve got loads of work to do.’ But Maribel turned a slight guilty pink for she could have spared a half-hour. Unfortunately seeing Leonidas again had shaken her up and she craved the security of her own home. She scooped up Elias to take him out to her car, which was parked at the back door. Her son was big for his age and lifting him was becoming more of an effort. She hefted him into his car seat. He put his own arms into the straps, displaying the marked streak of independence that sometimes put him at odds with his mother. ‘Elias do,’ he stated with purpose.
  12. 12. His bottom lip came out and he protested when she insisted on doing up the clasp on the safety belt. He wanted to do it himself, but she was determined not to give him the opportunity to master the technique of locking and releasing it. Having learnt to walk at an early age, Elias was already a skilled escape artist from chairs, buggies and play-pens. Maribel drove back out onto the road and slowed down to overtake a silver car parked by the side of it. It was a bad place to stop and she was surprised to see a vehicle there. A hundred yards further on, she turned into the sun-dappled rambling lane overhung by trees that led to what had once been her home with her parents. She had inherited the picturesque old farmhouse after her father died and it had been rented out for many years. When the property had finally fallen vacant, everybody had expected her to sell up and plunge the proceeds into a trendy urban apartment. The discovery around the same time that she was pregnant, however, had turned Maribel’s life upside down. After she had revisited the house where she had all too briefly enjoyed a wealth of parental love and attention, she had begun to appreciate that bringing up a child alone was going to demand a major change of focus and pace from her. She would have to give up her workaholic ways and make space in her busy schedule for a baby’s needs. Ignoring the comments about how old-fashioned and isolated the property was, she had quietly got on with organising the refurbishment of the interior. Situated in a secluded valley and convenient to both London and Oxford, the farmhouse, she felt, offered her the best of both worlds. The convenience of having a good friend like Ginny living nearby had been the icing on the cake, even before Ginny had suggested that she take care of Elias while Maribel was at work. ‘Mouse…Mouse…Mouse!’ Elias chanted, wriggling like an eel and pushing at the door as Maribel unlocked it. An extremely timid Irish wolfhound, Mouse was hiding under the table as usual. He would not emerge until he was reassured that it was only Maribel and Elias coming home. Struggling out from below the table because he was a very large dog, Mouse then welcomed his
  13. 13. family with boisterous enthusiasm. Boy and dog rolled on the floor in a tumbling heap. Elias scrambled up. ‘Mouse…up!’ he instructed, to the manner born. For a split-second, a flash of memory froze Maribel to the spot: Leonidas seven years earlier, asking when she planned on picking up the shirts lying on the floor. There had been that same note of imperious command and expectation, but not the same successful result because, intimidating though Leonidas was, Maribel had never been as eager to please as Mouse. Another image swiftly followed: Leonidas so domestically challenged and so outraged by the suggestion that he was helpless without servants that he had put an electric kettle on the hob. Her son’s yelp of pain jerked Maribel out of her abstraction. Elias had stumbled and bumped his head on the fridge. Tiredness made him clumsy. Maribel lifted him and rubbed his head in sympathy. Tear-drenched, furious brown eyes met hers, for the reverse side of his warmth and energy was a strong will and a temper of volcanic strength and durability. ‘I know, I know,’ she whispered gently, rocking him until his annoyance ebbed and his impossibly long black lashes began to droop. She took him upstairs to the bright and cheerful nursery she had decorated with painstaking care and enjoyment. Removing his shoes and jacket, she settled him down in his cot with soothing murmurs. He went out like a light, yet she knew he wouldn’t stay horizontal for very long. In sleep, he looked angelic and peaceful, but awake he could lay claim to neither trait. She watched him for a couple of minutes, involuntarily drawn into tracing the physical likeness that could only strike her with powerful effect on the same day that she had seen his father again. She wondered if her son was the only decent thing that Leonidas Pallis had ever created. It was a fight to get a grip on her thoughts again. Accompanied by Mouse, Maribel went into the small sunlit room she used as a study and got straight down to marking the pile of essays awaiting her attention. Some time later, Mouse barked and nudged at her arm with an anxious whine. Ten seconds after that warning, she heard the approach of a car and she pushed back her chair. She was walking into the hall
  14. 14. when she registered that other vehicles appeared to be arriving at the same time. Her brow furrowed in bewilderment, for she received few visitors and never in car loads. Glancing out of the window, she stilled in consternation, for a long gleaming limousine now obscured her view of the garden and the field beyond it. Who else could it be but Leonidas Pallis? Her paralysis lasted for only a moment before she raced into the lounge, gathered up the toys lying on the rug and threw them into the toy box, which she thrust at frantic speed behind the sofa. The bell went even before she straightened from that task. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror: her blue eyes were wide with fear, and her face was pale as death. She rubbed her cheeks to restore some natural colour while apprehension made her mind race. What the heck was Leonidas doing here? How could he possibly have found out where she lived? And why should he have even wanted to know? The bell rang again in a shrill, menacing burst. She recalled the Pallis impatience all too well. A dark sense of foreboding nudging at her, Maribel opened the door. ‘Surprise…surprise,’ Leonidas drawled softly. Unnerved by the sheer smoothness of that greeting, Maribel froze and Leonidas took immediate advantage by stepping over the threshold. Her hand fell from the door as she turned to face him. After what had been a mere stolen glimpse in church, she got her first good look at him. His suit and coat were exquisitely tailored, designer-cut and worn with supreme élan. His height and breadth alone were intimidating, but for a woman his lean sculpted bone structure and utterly gorgeous dark, deep-set eyes had the biggest impact. Nor was that effect the least diminished by the fact that those ebony eyes were as dangerously direct and cutting as a laser beam. A tiny pulse began beating horribly fast at the foot of her throat, interfering with her ability to breathe. ‘So what ever did happen to breakfast?’ Leonidas murmured with honeyed derision. A crimson tide of colour washed away Maribel’s pallor in a contrast as strong as blood on snow. Shock reverberated through her as he punched an unapologetic hole through the
  15. 15. mind-block she had imposed on her memories of that night after Imogen’s funeral, just over two years earlier. Flinching, she tore her gaze from his, hot with shame and taut with disbelief that he should have dared to throw that crack at her in virtually the first sentence he spoke. But then what did Leonidas not dare? The last time she had met his gaze, they had been a good deal closer and he had shaken her awake to murmur with quite shattering cool and command, ‘Make me breakfast while I’m in the shower.’ In remembrance, a wave of dizziness washed over her and her tummy flipped as though she had gone down too fast in a lift. She would have done just about anything to avoid the recollection of his cruel amusement that morning. She had been gone by the time he’d emerged from that shower. She had buried her mistake as deep as she could, confiding in nobody, indeed resolving to take that particular secret to the grave with her. She was ashamed of the events of that night and all too well aware that Leonidas had not even a passing acquaintance with sensations like shame or discomfiture. She was dismayed by the discovery that, even after two years, her defences were still laughably thin. So thin that he could still hurt her, she registered in dismay. ‘I would sooner not discuss that,’ Maribel enunciated with a wooden lack of expression. Exasperated by that prissy response, Leonidas snapped the front door shut with an authoritative hand and strolled into the front room. Her taste had not changed, he noted. Had he been presented with pictures of house interiors he could easily have picked out hers. The room was full of plants, towering piles of books and faded floral fabrics. Nothing seemed to match and yet there was a surprising stylishness and comfort to the effect she had achieved. ‘Or why you bolted from the church today?’ Leonidas queried, his rich, dark, accented drawl smooth as silk, but infinitely more disturbing. Feeling trapped but determined not to overreact, Maribel studied his elegant grey silk tie. ‘I wasn’t bolting—I was simply in a hurry.’
  16. 16. ‘But how unlike you to disregard the social rituals of the occasion,’ Leonidas censured softly. ‘Yet another unusual experience for me. You are the only woman who runs away from me.’ ‘Maybe I know you better than the others do.’ Maribel could have clapped her hand to her mouth in horror after that verbal reprisal simply tripped off her tongue without her even being aware that it was there. She was furious with herself, for in one foolish little sentence she had betrayed the fear, the anger, the bitterness and the loathing that she would have very much preferred to keep hidden from him. CHAPTER TWO LEONIDAS was not amused by that retaliation. The devil that lurked never far below his polished granite surface leapt out. While women of all ages fawned on him and hung on his every word, Maribel, it seemed, still favoured the acerbic response. He had never forgotten the one surprisingly sweet night when Maribel had used honey rather than vinegar in her approach. He had liked that; he had hugely preferred that different attitude, since he had neither taste nor tolerance for censure. His brilliant eyes gleamed in liquid-gold warning below his luxuriant black lashes. ‘Maybe you do,’ Leonidas acknowledged without any inflection at all. For a long, wordless moment, Leonidas took his fill while he looked at her, his gaze roaming over her with a boldness that came as naturally to him as aggression. His attention lingered on her strained violet-blue eyes, dropped to the luscious fullness of her mouth as it pouted against her peach-soft skin, and finally wandered lower to scan the full glory of her hourglass curves. It was a novelty to know that, this time around, she would most probably slap him if he touched her. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time. He almost smiled at the memory: his very first and still quite unique experience of female rejection.
  17. 17. Madly aware of that unashamedly sexual appraisal and unable to bear it any longer, Maribel flushed to her hairline and breathed curtly, ‘Stop it!’ ‘Stop what? ‘Leonidas growled, strong arousal now tugging at him, in spite of the powerful sense of intuition that warned him that there was something wrong. Even as he glanced back at her face, he picked up on her fear and wondered why she was scared. She had never been scared around him before, or so reluctant to meet his gaze. A faint sense of disappointment touched him, even while he wondered what was wrong with her. ‘Looking at me like that!’ For the first time in two long years, Maribel was hugely conscious of her body and she was furious that she could still be so easily affected by him. Leonidas loosed an earthy masculine laugh. ‘It’s natural for me to look.’ Her slim hands coiled into fists of restraint. ‘I don’t like it.’ ‘Tough. Aren’t you going to offer me coffee? Ask me to take off my coat and sit down?’ Leonidas chided. Maribel felt like a bird being played with by a cat and she snatched in a fractured breath. ‘No.’ ‘What has happened to your manners?’ Unasked, Leonidas peeled off his coat in a slow graceful movement that was curiously sexy and attracted her unwilling attention. Maribel dragged her guilty eyes off him again, gritting her teeth, literally praying for self- discipline. He came between her and her wits. He brought sex into everything. He made her think and feel things that were not her choice. No matter how hard she fought it, there was a shameful hum of physical awareness travelling through her resisting body. He had always had that effect on her, always. Leonidas had provoked a sense of guilt in Maribel almost from the first moment of their meeting.
  18. 18. In a fluid stride, Leonidas closed the distance between them and lifted a hand to push up her chin and enforce the eye contact she was so keen to avoid. ‘Was it the service? Did it upset you?’ He was now so close that Maribel trembled. She was taken aback by the ease with which he had touched her. She did not want to recall the fleeting intimacy that had broken down all normal barriers. She did not want to be reminded of the taste of his mouth or the evocative scent of his skin. ‘No…it was good to remember her,’ she said gruffly. ‘Then what’s the problem?’ Mesmeric dark golden eyes assailed hers, powered by a larger-than-life personality that few could have withstood. Her throat ached with her tension. ‘There isn’t one,’ she told him unevenly. ‘I just wasn’t expecting you to call.’ ‘I’m usually a welcome visitor,’ Leonidas murmured lazily, his relaxed rejoinder quite out of step with the keen penetration of his gaze. As Maribel strove to keep a calm expression on her oval face her teeth chattered together behind her sealed lips for a split-second before she overcame that urge. ‘Naturally I’m surprised to see you here. It’s been a long time and I’ve moved house,’ she pointed out, struggling to behave normally and say normal things. ‘Did my aunt give you my address?’ ‘No. I had you followed.’ Maribel turned pale at that unnervingly casual admission. ‘My goodness, why did you do that?’ ‘Curiosity? A dislike of relying on strangers for information?’ Leonidas shrugged with languid cool. An infinitesimal movement out of the corner of his eye turned his attention below the table where a shaggy grey dog was endeavouring to curl its enormous body into the
  19. 19. smallest possible space in the farthest corner. ‘Theos…I did not even realise there was an animal here. What is the matter with it?’ Maribel seized on the distraction of Mouse’s odd behaviour with enthusiasm. ‘He’s terrified of strangers and when he hides his head like that he seems to think he’s invisible, so don’t let on otherwise. Friendly overtures frighten him.’ ‘Still collecting lame ducks?’ Leonidas quipped and, as he turned his head away, he caught a glimpse through the window of a hen pecking in the flower bed at the front of the house. ‘You keep poultry here?’ His intonation was that of a jet-setter aghast at her deeply rural lifestyle. Maribel was willing to bet that Leonidas had never before been so close to domestic fowl, and in another mood she would have laughed at his expression and rattled on the window to chase the hen away from her plants. Unable to relax, she resolved to treat him as she would have treated any other unexpected visitor. ‘Look, I’ll make some coffee,’ she proffered, thrusting open the kitchen door. ‘I’m not thirsty. Tell me what you’ve been doing over the past couple of years,’ he invited softly. A chill ran down her taut spinal cord before she turned back to him. He couldn’t know about Elias, she reasoned inwardly. Why should he even suspect? Unless someone had said something at the service? But why the heck should anyone have mentioned her or her child? As far as her relatives were concerned she was a geek who led a deeply boring life. Scolding herself for the unfamiliar paranoia that was ready to pounce and take hold of her, Maribel tilted her chin. ‘I’ve been turning this place into a habitable home. It needed a lot of work. That kept me busy.’ Leonidas watched her hands lace together in a restive motion and untangle again. She folded her arms and shifted position in a revealing display of anxiety that any skilled observer would have recognised. ‘I believe you have a child now,’ he delivered smooth as glass, and all
  20. 20. the time as his own tension rose he was telling himself that he had to be wrong, his suspicions ridiculously fanciful. ‘Yes—yes, I have. I didn’t think you’d be too interested in that piece of news,’ Maribel countered in a determined recovery, forcing a wry smile onto her taut lips, while wondering how on earth he had found out that she had become a mother. ‘As I recall it, you used to give friends with kids the go-by.’ Leonidas would have been the first to admit that that was true: he had never had any interest in children and found the doting fondness of parents for their offspring a bore and an irritation. Nobody acquainted with him would have dreamt of wheeling out their progeny for him to admire. ‘Who told you I’d had a child?’ Maribel enquired a shade tightly. ‘The Strattons.’ ‘I’m surprised it was mentioned.’ While fighting to keep her voice light, Maribel was wondering frantically what she would say if he asked her what age her child was. Would she lie? Could she lie on such a subject? She was in a situation that she would have done almost anything to avoid. She did not believe that she could lie about such a serious matter and still live with her conscience. ‘Was it the “left-in-the-lurch” version?’ she asked. A rare smile of amusement slashed the Greek tycoon’s beautifully shaped mouth. ‘Yes.’ ‘That’s not how it was,’ Maribel declared, attempting not to stare, because when he smiled the chill factor vanished from his lean, hard-boned features and banished the forbidding dark reserve that put people so much on their guard. Without warning, distaste that she had slept with another man assailed Leonidas and killed his momentary amusement on the subject. He marvelled at that stab of possessiveness that ran contrary to his nature. His affairs were always casual, hampered by neither emotion
  21. 21. nor sentimentality. But then, he had known Maribel for a long time and he had become her first lover. Perhaps that had been inevitable, he reasoned, still in search of the precise trigger that had fired him into making that discovery, more than two years earlier. Once he had discovered how she felt about him, the awareness had lent a strangely enjoyable intimacy to their encounters. ‘How was it?’ he heard himself ask, and it was the sort of question he never asked, but he was determined to satisfy his curiosity. Maribel was disconcerted by that enquiry and she spread her hands in a jerky motion. Her tension was climbing steadily. ‘It wasn’t complex. I found myself pregnant and I wanted the baby.’ Leonidas wondered at her wording. Why no reference to the father? Another one-night stand? Had he given her a taste for them? Had he ever really known her? He would have sworn that Maribel Greenaway was one of the last women alive likely to embrace either promiscuity or unmarried motherhood. Her outlook on life was conservative. She went to church; she volunteered for charity work. She wore unrevealing clothes. A frown line dividing his sleek ebony brows, his gaze skimmed over the view through the kitchen doorway. There, however, his attention screeched to an abrupt halt and doubled back to re-examine the brightly coloured, magnetised alphabet letters adorning the refrigerator door. Those letters spelled out a familiar name. A powerful sense of disbelief gripped him. ‘What do you call your child?’ Leonidas murmured thickly. Maribel went rigid. ‘Why are you asking me that?’ ‘And why are you avoiding answering me?’ Leonidas shot back at her. A horrible cold knot twisted tight inside her stomach. It was not something she could hide, not something she could lie about, for her child’s name was a matter of public record. ‘Elias,’ she almost whispered, her voice dying on her at the worst possible moment.
  22. 22. It was the name of his grandfather and also one of his, and she pronounced it correctly in the Greek fashion, Ellee-us, not as someone English might have said it. Leonidas was so much shocked by that awareness that he was struck dumb, as he could not initially accept that what had only been the mildest of craziest suspicions might actually turn out to be true. ‘I always liked the name,’ Maribel told him in a last-ditch attempt at a cover-up. ‘Elias is a Pallis name. My grandfather had it and so also do I.’ Hard dark eyes rested on her with cold intensity. ‘Why did you choose to use it?’ Maribel felt as though an icy hand were closing round her vocal cords and chest and making it impossible for her to breathe properly. ‘Because I liked it,’ she said again, because she could think of nothing else to say. Leonidas swung away from her, lean brown hands clenching into fists of frustration. He had no time for mysteries or games that were not of his own making. His chequered life had taught him many things, but patience was not one of them. He refused to believe what his brain was striving to tell him. He did not do unprotected sex. A risk-taker in business and sport and equally fearless in many other fields, he was cautious when it came to contraception, always choosing the safe approach. He did not want children. He had never wanted children. Even less had he ever wished to run the risk of giving some woman a literal gun to hold to his head and his wallet. For what else could an unplanned child be to a man of his extreme wealth? A serious liability and a complication he could do without. It was a mistake he had always thought he was too smart to make. But he was well aware that the night after Imogen’s funeral he had been in a very bizarre mood and he had abandoned his usual caution. More than once. Maribel surveyed Leonidas with a surge of reluctant perception. Severe tension held his lean, powerful body taut. He was staggered and he was appalled, and she quite understood that. She did not blame him for his carelessness in getting her pregnant. It was true that she had felt rather differently when she had first discovered her condition, but the passage of time
  23. 23. had altered her perspective. After all, Elias had enriched her life to an almost indescribable degree and she could hardly regret his conception. ‘Let’s not discuss this,’ she murmured gently. That suggestion outraged Leonidas. How could a woman with her extraordinary intellect say something so foolish? But was it possible that she could have given birth to his child without even letting him know that she was pregnant? Surely it had to be impossible? His logic refused to accept her in such a role—she was a very conventional woman. Yet why else had she named her child Elias? Why was she so nervous? Why was she irrationally trying to evade even discussing the matter? ‘Is the child mine?’ Leonidas demanded harshly. Her natural colour had ebbed and with it the strength of her voice. ‘He’s mine. I see no reason to add anything else to that statement.’ ‘Don’t be stupid. I asked a straight question and I will have a straight answer. What age is he?’ ‘I’m not prepared to discuss Elias with you.’ Dry-mouthed, her heart beating so fast she felt nauseous, Maribel straightened her spine. ‘We have nothing to talk about. I’m sorry, but I would like you to leave.’ Leonidas could not give credence to what he was hearing. In all his life he had never been addressed in such a fashion. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ he breathed in a raw undertone. ‘You think you can throw this bombshell at me and then tell me to go away?’ ‘I didn’t throw anything at you. You reached your own conclusions without any assistance from me. I don’t want to argue with you.’ Her blue eyes were violet with a curious mix of defiance and entreaty.
  24. 24. ‘But if I hadn’t reached the correct conclusion, you would surely have contradicted me,’ Leonidas reasoned with harsh bite. ‘As you did not, I can only assume that you believe Elias to be my child.’ ‘He is mine.’ Maribel linked her hands tightly together to prevent them from trembling. ‘I’m quite sure you don’t want my advice, but I’ll give it all the same. Please consider this issue in a calm and logical way first.’ ‘Calm? Logical?’ Leonidas growled, affronted by that particular choice of words. ‘Elias is healthy, happy and secure. He lacks nothing. There is no reason for you to be concerned or involved in any way in our lives,’ Maribel told him tautly, willing him to listen, understand and accept those facts. Rage was rising in Leonidas with a ferocity he had not experienced since his sister had died when he was sixteen. How dared she seek to exclude him from his child’s life? Elias had to be his child, his son. Had it been otherwise, Maribel would have said so. But bewilderment held him back from the much more aggressive response ready to blast from him. Why was she trying to get rid of him if Elias was his child? What kind of sense did that make? ‘Did you assume I wouldn’t want to know? Is that what lies at the foot of this nonsense?’ Dark eyes shimmering gold, Leonidas studied her in wrathful challenge. ‘Are you presuming to believe that you know how I would feel if I had a child? You do not know. Even I do not know when such news comes at me out of nowhere!’ The atmosphere was so hot and tense Maribel would not have been surprised to hear it sizzle and see it smoke. ‘When was he born?’ Leonidas demanded. Her neck and her shoulders ached with the tension of her rigid stance. All the legendary force of the Pallis will was trained on her in the onslaught of his fierce dark gaze. Never had she
  25. 25. been more conscious of his strength of character and it occurred to her that parting with a few harmless facts might actually dampen down his animosity. She gave the date. The silence seemed to last for ever. In the circumstances and with such a date, Leonidas knew immediately that there was virtually no chance that anyone else could have fathered her child. ‘I want to see him.’ Maribel went white and shook her head in urgent negative, chestnut brown hair flying round her cheeks in a glossy fall. ‘No. I won’t allow that.’ ‘You won’t…allow…that?’ Leonidas breathed in rampant disbelief. Maribel wished that there had been a more diplomatic way of telling him that. Unhappily, she had no precedent to follow because people didn’t say no to Leonidas Pallis. ‘No’ was not a word he was accustomed to hearing. ‘No’ was not a word he knew how to accept. From birth he had had every material thing he had ever wanted or asked for, while being starved of the much more important childhood needs. But he had survived by tuning out the emotional stuff, getting by without it. Now when he desired something, he simply went all out to take it and sensible people didn’t get in his way. He was as ruthless as only a very powerful personality could be when he was crossed. She knew very well that her refusal struck him as a deeply offensive challenge and just how unfortunate that reality was. ‘I won’t allow it,’ she whispered apologetically while she stood as straight and stiff as a statue, struggling not to feel intimidated. But Leonidas was already striding past her to snatch up the photo frame on a corner table. ‘Is this him?’ he breathed in a thickened undertone, staring down with a strong air of bemusement at the snap of the smiling toddler clutching a toy lorry. It was natural human curiosity, she told herself, fighting to control the sense of panic clawing at her. ‘Yes,’ she conceded in reluctant confirmation.
  26. 26. Leonidas scanned the photo with an intensity that would have stripped paint. He studied the little boy’s olive skin and black curly hair and his dark-as-jet eyes. Although he could never recall looking at any other child with the slightest interest and had absolutely no basis for comparison, he thought that Elias was, without a shade of doubt, the most handsome baby he had ever seen. From his level eyebrows to his determined little chin, he just oozed strong Pallis genes. ‘Please go, Leonidas,’ Maribel urged tautly. ‘Don’t make this a battle between us. Elias is a happy child.’ ‘He is also self-evidently a Pallis,’ Leonidas pronounced in a bemused tone, his Greek accent more marked than usual. ‘No, he’s a Greenaway.’ Lush black lashes swept up on sizzling dark golden eyes. ‘Maribel…he is a Pallis. You cannot call a dog a cat just because you want to, and why should you want to?’ ‘I can think of many reasons. Now that you’ve forced me to satisfy your curiosity, will you leave?’ Maribel was trembling. She was tempted to snatch that precious picture of her son from his lean brown hand. All her protective antenna were operating on high alert. ‘Acquit me of a motive as superficial as that of mere curiosity,’ Leonidas censured. ‘You owe me an explanation—’ ‘I owe you nothing and I want you to go.’ Swallowing back the thick taste of panic in her throat, Maribel moved forward and snatched up the phone. ‘If you don’t leave right now, I’ll call the police.’ Leonidas gave her a disconcerted glance and then threw back his handsome dark head and laughed out loud. ‘Why would you do something so mad?’ ‘This is my home. I want you to leave.’
  27. 27. ‘In the same hour that I find out that you may be the mother of my only child?’ Innate caution and shrewdness were already exercising restraint on Leonidas. He knew it would be most unwise to acknowledge Elias as his before stringent DNA testing had been carried out and the blood bond fully proven by scientific means. Yet he knew in his bones that Elias was his child. He did not know how he knew but he did, and he was already reaching the conclusion that the situation could have been a great deal worse. At least he had Maribel to deal with, and not some mercenary, calculating harpy without morals. ‘I will call the police,’ Maribel threatened unsteadily, terrified that Elias would waken and make some sound upstairs, and that Leonidas would immediately insist on going up to see him. Leonidas slung her a confounded look and flung his arms wide in a gesture that was expansively Greek and impressive. ‘What is the matter with you? Is this hysteria? Are you at risk of robbery or assault? Is that why you need to talk garbage about calling the police?’ Her eyes were as bright a purple-blue as wild violets, an impression heightened by her pallor and tension. ‘I want you to forget you came here and forget what you think you may have found out. For all our sakes.’ ‘Is there some other guy hanging around who thinks that Elias is his child?’ Leonidas enquired grimly, seizing on the only motive he could think of that might explain why she was so eager for him to stage a vanishing act. A band of tension was starting to pound behind Maribel’s smooth brow and tighten there like a painful vice. Standing up to Leonidas Pallis in such a mood was like being battered by a fierce storm. ‘Of course not.’ Distaste showed openly in her oval face. ‘That’s a really sleazy suggestion.’ ‘Women do stuff like that all the time,’ Leonidas told her cynically, and he was not wholly convinced by her denial. Having watched Imogen manipulate Maribel, he had soon appreciated that, while Maribel might be exceptionally brainy, she could also be very gullible
  28. 28. when her emotions were engaged. ‘If that isn’t the problem, spare me the theatrical speeches about forgetting I came here. How likely is that?’ ‘Just this once I’m asking you to think about someone other than yourself. If that’s theatrical, I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.’ With an unsteady hand, Maribel pushed the hair back from her cheekbone. Leonidas gave her a quelling look of granite hardness. ‘I’m not listening to this claptrap. Where is Elias?’ Maribel stepped into the hall and yanked open the front door with a perspiring hand. ‘I’ll get the police, Leonidas. I mean it. I’ve got nothing to lose.’ ‘My business card. Call me when you come to your senses.’ Leonidas settled a card down on the table. ‘I won’t be changing my mind any time soon,’ Maribel declared defiantly. Leonidas came to a halt in front of her. Dangerous dark golden eyes slammed down into hers. ‘You want to start a war? You think you can handle that? You think you can handle me?’ he growled. ‘You could never handle me.’ ‘But I have to, because I will not accept you in any part of my son’s life. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect him from you!’ Maribel swore in a feverish rush, determination etched into every rigid line of her small, shapely figure. ‘Protect him from me? What are you trying to say? You become offensive and without reason.’ Lean. dark features set with chilling intent, Leonidas shot her a forbidding appraisal. ‘Why? I expected better from you. Is this some sort of payback, Maribel? Are you angry that it took me two years to look you up?’ Maribel wanted to kill him and it was not the first time he had filled her with so much rage and pain that she barely knew what she was thinking any more. Nobody could be more
  29. 29. provocative than Leonidas Pallis. Nobody knew better how to put the metaphorical boot in and hurt. Sensible people did not make an enemy of him. But then a sensible woman, she thought in an agony of bitter self-loathing, would never have gone to bed with him in the first place. ‘Why would I be?’ Maribel murmured helplessly. ‘I don’t even like you.’ Virtually nothing shocked Leonidas as, while he’d been growing up, he had seen all the worst facets of human nature as paraded by his dysfunctional mother, but that declaration from Maribel shocked him. He had always viewed her no-nonsense front as a defensive shell. He regarded her as a caring, sympathetic woman with a genuine soft centre, sadly condemned to have her good nature taken advantage of by the users and abusers of the world. But in the space of half an hour, Maribel had turned everything he believed he knew about her upside down and gone out of her way to attack and insult him. Yet, from what he could work out, she appeared to be the mother of his child. He wondered if stress was making her hysterical, if she just couldn’t cope with the situation. He did not accept that she didn’t like him. He knew she loved him and he had known that almost as long as he had known her. She was not a changeable woman. That she had given birth to his child, rather than choose to have a termination, struck him as perfectly understandable. Lean, darkly handsome face bleak, Leonidas climbed into his limousine. A Pallis and an alpha male personality to the core of his aggressive being, he wasted no time in making his next move. Lifting the phone, he called the executive head of his international legal team and asked for a copy of Elias Greenaway’s birth certificate to be obtained. He gave the details and ignored the staggered silence that fell at the other end of the line, because Leonidas Pallis never explained his actions to anyone, or laid out the full details of a situation unless he chose to do so. ‘In the morning, I also want a full briefing with regard to my rights as a father in this country.’
  30. 30. Furiously angry and in fighting mode, Leonidas marvelled afresh at Maribel’s offensive behaviour and unreasonable attitude. As he recalled her words his hostility grew ever stronger. To refuse him his natural desire to see the child! To suggest that the child should be protected from him and would be better off without him! His sense of honour was outraged by the shameful accusations she had dared to make. And, all the while, he kept on seeing images of Maribel flashing him that defiant look, her luscious pink mouth taut with censure. His shimmering dark eyes scorched and hardened. How could she have had his baby without telling him? When the photo of the little boy came to mind, however, he tensed, for he preferred being angry with Maribel to thinking about the matter that lay at the heart of it all. CHAPTER THREE ELIAS was grizzling noisily for attention by the time that Maribel finally emerged from her overwrought stance behind the front door. The limousine, with its accompanying cavalcade, was long gone. Recovering her wits, Maribel hastened upstairs and swept her son from his cot with an enthusiasm that made him laugh and shout with pleasure; there was nothing Elias loved more than good old-fashioned horseplay. Trembling, Maribel lifted him high and then hugged him tight, knowing that she would want to die if anything happened to him. She had done the right thing in sending Leonidas away; she knew she had done the right thing. But what were the chances that Leonidas would stay away? Maribel looped her damp hair off her anxious brow. Leonidas, who was mentally primed only to do what he wanted to do, and likely to want to do what he was told he could not or should not do? Elias had the same bloody-minded competitive trait. Maybe it was a male thing. She took Elias out into the garden with Mouse. While her son and the wolfhound ran about doing nothing much that she could see but hugely enjoying themselves, Maribel sat on the swing and let her memory take her back seven years…
  31. 31. Imogen had bought a house in Oxford and had persuaded Maribel, who had then been a student, to move in and take care of the property for her. Maribel had been happy to reduce her expenses and take care of the domestic trivia that Imogen, who had often been away from home, couldn’t be bothered with. Imogen had been twenty-three, and her career as a fashion model had failed to reach the dazzling heights she’d craved. An indomitable party girl, Imogen had wasted no time in introducing herself to Leonidas Pallis when she’d run into him at a nightclub. At the time Leonidas had been a student at Oxford University. ‘He is so rich money means nothing to him. His party was amazing!’ Imogen, a tall, strikingly lovely blonde in a trendy short dress, was so excited that her words were tripping over each other. ‘He’s an A-list celebrity and so cool, he just freaks me out. Oh, and did I mention what a total babe he is?’ Listening to that artless flood of confidence, Maribel was more worried than impressed, because Imogen was all too easily influenced by the wrong people. The advent of an infamous Greek playboy, who crashed cars and abseiled down skyscrapers for thrills, struck Maribel as very bad news. Dating the heir to the Pallis billions, however, very much enhanced Imogen’s earning power as a model. Suddenly she was in great demand, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous and flying round the world to shoots, weekend parties and endless vacations. ‘He’s the one…he’s the one. I want to marry him and become a Greek tycoon’s fabulously wealthy wife. I’ll die if he dumps me!’ Imogen gasped at the end of the first fortnight, and that same night she dragged Leonidas in to meet Maribel without the slightest warning. Clad in tartan pyjamas, and curled up with a research paper on carbon dating and a mug of hot cocoa clutched in her hand, Maribel was appalled when Imogen simply walked into her bedroom with Leonidas in tow.
  32. 32. ‘This is my cousin, Maribel, my best friend in the whole world,’ Imogen declared. ‘She’s a student like you.’ Lounging in the doorway, Leonidas gave Maribel a lazy smile of amusement and the shock of his intense attraction hit Maribel like an electric charge. She didn’t know where to look or how to handle it, since the even bigger shock was that she had the capacity to feel that way! Up until that point, Maribel’s dating forays had been unenthusiastic and always disappointing. One guy had got friendly with her only to steal her work, and another had tried to get her to do his assignments for him. Then there were the many who expected sex on the first date and the others who drank themselves into a stupor. None of them had given her goose-bumps or, indeed, an instant of excitement—until Leonidas appeared on the horizon. And Maribel being Maribel, she was sick with guilt at being attracted to her cousin’s man. That very first night, she shut out that awareness and refused to allow herself to take it out again. In the month that followed, she barely saw Imogen, who stayed in Leonidas’ properties in Oxford, London and abroad. And then, just as suddenly, the brief affair was over, just one more fling in Pallis terms, but it had meant a great deal more to Imogen, who had adored the high life. ‘Of course, if you want the right to live in the Pallis world, you’ve got to share Leonidas and not be possessive.’ Imogen tried to act as if she didn’t mind watching Leonidas with her replacement, a young film starlet. ‘With the choice he’s got, you can’t expect him to be satisfied with one woman.’ ‘Just walk away,’ Maribel urged ruefully. ‘He’s a cold, arrogant bastard. Don’t do this to yourself.’ ‘Are you crazy?’ Imogen demanded in shrill disbelief. ‘I’ll settle for whatever I can get from him. Maybe in a few weeks, when he’s fed up with the movie star, he’ll turn back to me again. I’m somebody when I’m with him and I’m not giving that up!’
  33. 33. And true to her resolve, Imogen’s ability to make Leonidas laugh when he was bored ensured that she retained him as a friend. Perhaps only Maribel cringed when she appreciated that Imogen was quite willing to ridicule herself if it amused Leonidas. Then there was a fire at Leonidas’ Oxford apartment and Imogen invited him to use her house while she was working abroad. Maribel’s animosity went into override because Leonidas proved to be the house guest from hell. Without a word of apology or prior warning, he took over and moved in his personal staff, including a cook and a valet, not to mention his bodyguards. His security requirements squeezed her out of her comfortable bedroom into an attic room on the second floor. Visitors came and went day and night, while phones rang constantly and scantily clad and often drunken and squabbling women lounged about every room. After ten days of absolute misery, Maribel lost her temper. Up until that point, she wasn’t even sure Leonidas had realised that she was still residing in the house. On the morning of the eleventh day, she confronted him on the landing with a giggling brunette still tucked under one arm. ‘May I have a word with you in private?’ A sleek ebony brow elevated, because even at the age of twenty-four Leonidas was a master of the art of pure insolence. ‘Why?’ ‘This is my home as well as Imogen’s, and, while I appreciate that in her eyes you can do no wrong, I find you and your lifestyle utterly obnoxious.’ ‘Get lost,’ Leonidas told the brunette with brutal cool. Studying him in disgust, Maribel shook her head. ‘Possibly you are accustomed to living in the equivalent of a brothel where anything goes, but I am not. Tell your women to keep their clothes on. Send them home when they become drunk and offensive. Try to stop them screaming and playing loud music in the middle of the night.’
  34. 34. ‘You know what you need?’ Dark golden eyes hot with a volatile mix of anger and amusement, Leonidas anchored his hands to her hips and hauled her to him, as if she were no more than a doll. ‘A proper man in your bed.’ Maribel slapped him so hard her hand went numb, and he reeled back from her in total shock. ‘Don’t you ever speak to me like that again and don’t touch me either!’ ‘Are you always like this?’ Leonidas demanded in raw incredulity. ‘No, Leonidas. I’m only like this with you. You bring out the very best in me,’ Maribel told him furiously. ‘I’m trying to study for my exams…okay? Under this roof, you are not allowed to act like an arrogant, selfish, ill-mannered yob!’ ‘You really don’t like me,’ Leonidas breathed in wonderment. ‘What’s to like?’ ‘I’ll make it up to you—’ ‘No!’ Her interruption was immediate and pungent, because she was well aware of how he got around the rules with other people. ‘You can’t buy yourself out of this one. I don’t want your money. I just want you to sort this out. I want my bedroom back. I want a peaceful household. There isn’t room here for you to have a bunch of live-in staff.’ That evening, she came home to find all her possessions back in her old room and that there was blissful silence. She baked him some Baklava as a thank-you and left it with a note on the table. Two days later, he asked when she was going to pick up his unwashed shirts from the floor. When she explained that her agreement with Imogen did not include such menial duties for guests and that hell would freeze over before she touched his shirts, Leonidas asked how he was supposed to manage without household support. ‘Are you really that helpless?’ Maribel queried in astonishment.
  35. 35. ‘I have never been helpless in my life!’ Leonidas roared at her. Of course he was—totally helpless in a domestic capacity. But a Pallis male took every challenge to heart and Leonidas felt that he had to prove himself. So he burned out the electric kettle on the hob, ate out for every meal and tried to wash his shirts in the tumble drier. Pity finally stirring, she suggested his staff came back but lived out. An uneasy peace was achieved, for Leonidas could, when he made the effort, charm the birds from the trees. She was surprised to discover that he was actually very clever. Two days before he moved into his new apartment, he staggered in at dawn hopelessly drunk. Awakened by the noise he made, Maribel got out of bed to lecture him about the evils of alcohol, but was silenced when he told her that it was the anniversary of his sister’s death. Shaken, she listened but learned little, as he continually lapsed into Greek before finally commenting that he didn’t know why he was confiding in her. ‘Because I’m nice and I’m discreet.’ Maribel had no illusions that he was confiding in her for any other reason. She knew herself to be plump and plain. But that was still the night when Maribel fell head over heels in love with Leonidas Pallis: when she registered the human being who dwelt beneath the high-gloss sophistication, who could not cope with the emotional turmoil of his bad memories. The day he moved out, and without any warning of his intention, he kissed her. In the midst of a perfectly harmless dialogue, he brought his mouth down on hers with a hot and hungry demand that shook her rigid. She jerked back from him in amazement and discomfiture. ‘No!’ she told him with vehemence. ‘Seriously?’ Leonidas prompted, his disbelief patent. ‘Seriously, no.’ Her lips still tingling from the forbidden onslaught of his, she backed away from him and laughed to cover her embarrassment. It was her belief that he had kissed her because he had very little idea of how to have a platonic friendship with a woman.
  36. 36. Knowing how Imogen still felt about him, she felt so guilty about that kiss that she confessed to her cousin. Imogen giggled like a drain. ‘Someone must’ve dared Leonidas to do it! I mean, it’s not like you’ve got the looks or the sex appeal to pull him on your own, is it?’ Her earliest memories of Leonidas were bitter-sweet, Maribel acknowledged as her thoughts drifted back to the present. Leonidas had cast a long dark shadow that had somehow always been present during the years that followed. When Maribel had occasionally met him again through Imogen, she had utilised a tart sense of humour as a defence mechanism. While putting together billion-pound business deals, Leonidas had continued to run through an unending succession of gorgeous women and make headlines wherever he went. Imogen, however, had worked less and had become more and more immersed in her destructive party lifestyle. Over a year before her death, Leonidas had stopped taking Imogen’s phone calls. Maribel caught Elias as he ran past her and pulled him onto her lap where he lay, totally convulsed by giggles. Her eyes overbright, she resisted the urge to hug him again and let him wriggle free to return to his play. He was so happy. She did not believe that Leonidas had ever known that kind of happiness or security. Elias depended on her to do what was best for him. She did not believe that any father was better than no father at all; she refused to believe that. Leonidas was conscious of annoyance when he saw Elias Greenaway’s birth certificate: he had not been named as the father. ‘I want DNA-testing organised immediately.’ The three lawyers seated on the other side of the table tensed in concert. ‘Where a couple are unmarried, DNA tests can only be carried out with the mother’s consent,’ the most senior of the trio imparted. ‘As your name isn’t on the birth certificate, you don’t have parental responsibility either. May I ask if you have a cordial relationship with Miss Greenaway?’
  37. 37. The Greek tycoon’s gaze flared gold and veiled. ‘It’s Dr Greenaway, and our relationship is not up for discussion. Concentrate on my rights as a parent.’ ‘Where there is no marriage, the UK legal system favours the mother. If you have the lady’s agreement to DNA-testing, to sharing parental responsibility and to granting reasonable access to the child, there won’t be a problem,’ the lawyer enumerated with quiet clarity. ‘Without that agreement, however, there would considerable difficulty. Applying to a court would be your only remedy and, in general, the judge will regard the mother and custodial parent as the best arbiter of the child’s interests.’ Always cool under pressure, Leonidas pondered those disconcerting facts, his lean, dark face aloof. Although nobody would have guessed it, he was very surprised by what he was finding out. ‘So I need her consent.’ ‘It would be the most straightforward approach.’ Leonidas recognised what went unsaid but invited no further comment. He knew that there were wheels within wheels. For a man of his wealth, there was always a way of circumventing the rules. When winning was the goal, and it was usually the only goal for Leonidas, the concept of fair play had no weight and the innocent often got hurt. That was not, however, the route he wished to follow with Maribel, who had once been sincerely appalled to catch Imogen cheating at a board game. For the moment he was prepared to utilise more conventional means of persuasion… Maribel lifted her office phone and jerked out of her seat the instant she heard Leonidas’ rich, dark-chocolate drawl in her ears. ‘What do you want?’ she demanded, too rattled to even attempt the polite small talk usually employed at the outset of a conversation. ‘I want to talk to you.’
  38. 38. ‘But we spoke yesterday and I’m at work,’ Maribel protested in a near whisper, panic squeezing the life from her vocal cords. ‘You’re free for an hour before your next tutorial,’ Leonidas informed her. ‘I’ll see you in five minutes.’ Suddenly Maribel wished she were the sort of woman who put on make-up every day, instead of just on high days and holidays. She dug frantically into her bag to find a mirror and brushed her hair, while striving not to notice that her sleepless night was etched on her face and in the heaviness of her eyes. A split-second after that exercise, she was outraged by her instinctive reaction to his phone call. Instead of mustering her wits and concentrating on what was important, she had spent those precious moments fussing over her appearance. A waste of time, she told herself in exasperation, glancing down at her ruffled green shirt, trousers and sensible pumps. Only Cinderella’s fairy godmother could have worked a miracle with such unpromisingly practical material. Leonidas strolled in with the unhurried grace that was so much a part of him. Deceptively indolent dark golden eyes skimmed over her taut expression and he sighed. ‘I’m not the enemy, Maribel.’ Maribel lifted her chin, but evaded too close a meeting with his incisive gaze. But that single harried glimpse of his lean strong features still lingered in the back of her mind. The bold, sculpted cheekbones, the imperious blade of a nose and the tough jawline were impressive even before the rest of him was taken into account. She had always got a kick out of looking at Leonidas. Denying that urge to look and enjoy hurt to an almost physical degree. Desperate to relocate her composure, she sucked in a steadying breath. ‘Coming here to see me is indiscreet,’ she told him stiffly. ‘This is a public building and my place of work. A lot of people would recognise you. You attract too much notice.’
  39. 39. ‘I cannot help the name I was born with.’ His fluid shrug somehow contrived to imply that she was being wildly irrational. ‘You must’ve known that we would have to talk again. Possibly I felt that you would be less likely to threaten me with the police here.’ ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, you knew I wasn’t really going to call the police to get rid of you!’ Maribel’s patience just snapped at that crack. ‘And since when were you afraid of anything? I can see the headlines even as we speak. ATTEMPTED ARREST OF GREEK TYCOON, because you know perfectly well that your bodyguards wouldn’t give you up to anybody! Do you really think I would risk inviting that kind of attention?’ ‘No?’ Leonidas filed away the obvious fact that she had a healthy fear of media exposure. Considering the many women who had boasted in print of an intimate association with him, he wondered if he should be offended by her attitude. She had always been so different from the women he was accustomed to that he was never quite sure what she might say or how she might react. ‘Of course I wouldn’t. I can’t believe that you would want that either. In fact I’m sure you’ve thought seriously about things since yesterday.’ ‘Obviously.’ Leonidas leant back against the edge of her desk and stretched out his long powerful legs, a manoeuvre that had the effect of virtually trapping her by the corner next to the window. The office was no bigger than a large broom cupboard and it contained a second desk because it was a shared facility. He surveyed her with assessing cool. Even tiredness could not dim the crystal clarity of those violet eyes. As for the outfit, it looked drab at first glance, but the snug fit of the shirt and the trousers at breast and hip enhanced the proud curves and intriguing valleys of her fabulously abundant figure. She was woman enough to make many of her sex seem as flat and one-dimensional as cardboard, he conceded, assailed by a highly erotic recollection of Maribel all rosy, warm and luscious at dawn. The instant tightening at his groin almost made him smile, for it was some time since he had reacted to a woman with that much enthusiasm.
  40. 40. Subjected to one sensual flash of his bold, dark golden gaze, Maribel went rigid. She was aghast at the languorous warmth spreading through her and at the swollen feel of her breasts within the confinement of her bra. As her tender nipples tightened she folded her arms in a jerky movement. ‘So, if you’ve thought seriously…’ ‘I still want answers. At least, be realistic.’ His brilliant eyes now screened to a discreet glimmer below lush black lashes, his drawl was as smooth as silk. ‘What man would not, in this situation?’ Maribel didn’t want to be realistic. She just wanted him to go away again and stop threatening the peace of mind that she had worked so hard to achieve. ‘What do I have to do to make you understand?’ ‘See both sides of the equation. Be the logical woman I know you to be. To ask me to walk away without even knowing whether or not the child is mine is absurd.’ The complete calm and quiet of his voice had an almost hypnotic effect on her. ‘Yes, but…’ Maribel pinned her lips closed on the temptation to speak hasty words ‘…it’s not that simple.’ ‘Isn’t it?’ Leonidas countered. ‘Clearly you believe that Elias is my son. If you didn’t believe that, you would have swiftly disabused me of the idea.’ Maribel stiffened, her eyes reflecting her indecision. ‘Leonidas…’ ‘Every child has the right to know who his father is. Until I was seven years old, I believed my father was my mother’s first husband. But, after the divorce, it emerged that someone else was the culprit. I know what I’m talking about. Are you planning to lie to Elias?’ ‘Yes…no! Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ Maribel gasped, raking her chestnut hair off her troubled brow with an anxious hand, as his candour had disarmed her. ‘I will do whatever is best for Elias.’
  41. 41. ‘One day Elias will be an adult, and you will lose him if you lie to him about his parentage.’ Leonidas dealt her a cool dark appraisal. ‘You hadn’t thought of that aspect, had you? Or about the fact that Elias has rights, too.’ Maribel blenched at that unwelcome reminder. ‘And what if something happens to you while he is still a child? Who will take care of him then?’ ‘That’s dealt with in my will.’ Any pretence of relaxation abandoned at that admission, Leonidas was as still as a panther about to spring. ‘Do I figure in it?’ Tense as a bow string, Maribel slowly shook her head. The silence folded in as thick and heavy as a fog. With reluctance, Maribel looked back at him. Leonidas was studying her with a chilling condemnation that cut her to the bone. It was obvious that he had already reached his own conclusions as to her son’s parentage. Her heart sank, since she had no way of convincing him otherwise, no magical method of turning back time and ensuring that he did not find out what she had believed he would have been perfectly happy not to know. ‘All right,’ she said gruffly, her slim shoulders slumping, for she felt as battered as if she had gone ten rounds with a heavyweight boxer. ‘You got me pregnant.’ Leonidas was startled by the strong sense of satisfaction that gripped him and relieved that he had not had to exert pressure. As he had anticipated, Maribel had listened to her conscience. So, the boy was his. The boy was a Pallis: the next generation of the family. His ancient trio of great-aunts would be overjoyed at the continuation of the Pallis bloodline, while his more avaricious relatives would be heartbroken at being cut out in the inheritance stakes. Although Leonidas had long since decided that he would neither marry nor reproduce, it had
  42. 42. not until that moment occurred to him that he might father a son and heir with so little personal inconvenience. ‘I knew that you wouldn’t lie to me,’ he intoned with approval. But Maribel felt very much as though she had failed. She knew that decent standards were a weakness in his vicinity. She knew his flaws. Yet she was still ensnared by the stunning gold of his eyes glinting below the dense black fringe of his lashes. He could still take her breath away with one scorching glance. In a lithe movement Leonidas abandoned his misleadingly casual stance against the desk and straightened his lean, powerful body to his full imposing height. He reached for her taut, clenched fingers, straightening them out with confidence to draw her closer. ‘You’ve done the right thing,’ he murmured lazily. ‘I respect you for telling me the truth.’ ‘That’s good, because I think that telling you the truth was one of the most pointless things I’ve ever done.’ Her slender fingers trembled in the hold of his as she fought the insidious force of his sensual charisma. Once bitten, for ever shy, she reminded herself frantically. He had almost destroyed her self-esteem more than two years earlier. Imogen and a whole host of other women had somehow managed to do casual with Leonidas, but Maribel had felt as though her heart were being ripped out slowly while she was still alive. And the horror of it had lasted for weeks, months, afterwards. ‘How so?’ Leonidas could feel the trepidation she was struggling to hide and marvelled at it, for he could think of no reason for her continuing apprehension. His thumb massaging her narrow wrist in a soothing motion, he gazed down at her, his attention lingering on the ripe pink fullness of her mouth. As the rich tide of sexual arousal grasped him he made no attempt to quell it. In fact he was enjoying the astonishing strength of his reaction to her. Seducing Maribel, he was recalling, had been unexpectedly sweet, and it would certainly take care of all the arguments now. ‘I’m not angry with you.’
  43. 43. ‘Not at the moment…no,’ Maribel agreed, dry-mouthed, in response to the perceptible change in the atmosphere. Her heart was thumping as fast as a car being revved up on a race track. It was as if time had slowed down, while her every physical sense went on hyper-alert. Her breath catching in her throat, she fought to stay in control. ‘We were careless,’ Leonidas commented in a husky undertone, wondering if he should lock the door and take full advantage of the moment. ‘I wasn’t…you were,’ Maribel muttered, unable even with her brain in a state of sensual freefall to let him get away with making such an unfair claim. ‘I left my wallet in the limo and you wouldn’t let me phone for it to be brought in, so I had no contraception—’ ‘I didn’t want your chauffeur and your wretched security team to know what you were doing!’ Maribel protested, her cheeks burning at the memory of her embarrassment. Leonidas gave her a smile of unholy amusement. ‘I stayed the night with you. So what?’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ Maribel recognised the treacherous intimacy of the discussion. Fighting the wicked draw of his dark animal magnetism, she turned her head away. He lifted a lean brown hand up to flick a straying strand of amber-coloured hair back from her pale brow. Incredibly aware of his proximity, Maribel quivered. She could feel her whole body leaning towards him. It was as if he had pressed a button and her spine had crumbled. There was a craving in her that overpowered common sense. There was a wild longing for the forbidden and, try as she might, she could not stamp it out. ‘You make this complicated,’ Leonidas muttered thickly, a big hand splaying to the feminine curve of her hip to ease her up against him before she could step out of reach. ‘But for me it’s simple.’
  44. 44. She knew it was not simple, she knew it was complicated. She even knew that it was a hideous mistake and that she was going to hate herself later. But when he bent his handsome dark head, she still found herself stretching up on tiptoe so that she wouldn’t have to wait a split-second longer than necessary to make physical contact. And whatever else Leonidas was, he was an overpoweringly physical male. His lips claimed hers with a red-hot hunger and demand that she felt right down to her toes. His tongue tasted her and she shivered. He pushed against her, banding her closer with strong hands, unashamedly letting her feel the hard thrust of his erection. Answering heat flared low in her belly and she gasped beneath his marauding mouth. Her fingers dug into his broad shoulders. With no recollection of how they had got there, she yanked her hands guiltily off him again. Forcing herself to break free of his arms hurt as much as losing a layer of skin. Violet-blue eyes blazing with resentment at his nerve, Maribel launched herself clumsily back out of reach. Her shoulders and hips met the filing cabinet behind her and provided merciful support, because her legs felt as sturdy as quaking jelly. ‘What the hell are you playing at?’ she snapped at him in furious condemnation, angry over her weakness and the hateful inevitability of his having taken advantage of it. ‘Is this because I showed you the door at my home yesterday? Did I insult your ego? You have just found out that you’re the father of my son! And what do you do? You make a pass at me!’ ‘Why not?’ Having followed his natural inclinations and met with a very encouraging response, Leonidas was in no mood to apologise, particularly not when he was stifling a staggeringly powerful desire to simply haul her back into his arms. ‘I think I’m behaving very well. I’m willing to accept responsibility—’ ‘You’ve never accepted responsibility for a woman in your life!’ Maribel launched at him with a bitterness she could not conceal. ‘I’m willing to accept responsibility for Elias.’
  45. 45. ‘But you’re so busy being a player that you’ve just shown me all over again why I can’t stand the thought of you in my son’s life!’ Maribel slung at him, the raw force of her emotions ringing from her voice. Her entire body was tingling with almost painful sensitivity and a stark sense of what could only be described as deprivation. Shame over her loss of control threatened to choke her. ‘You’ll have to learn to stand it and me, because I have no intention of staying out of my child’s life.’ Hard dark-as-midnight eyes sliced back at her like gleaming rapier blades of warning challenge. ‘Elias is a Pallis.’ ‘No matter what it takes, I swear that I will prevent you from gaining access to him,’ Maribel threw back at him with clenched fists. Leonidas released his breath in a slow, derisive hiss. ‘Give me one good reason why you should behave that way.’ ‘Just look at what being born a Pallis did to you!’ Maribel sent him a furious appraisal, because the brazen self-assurance he exuded only reminded her of the dignity she had surrendered in his arms. ‘You’re irresponsible. You have no respect for women. You’re a commitment-phobe—’ Derision engulfed by incredulous indignation, Leonidas growled. ‘That is outrageous.’ ‘It’s the truth. Right now, Elias would be a novelty to you like a new toy. You only take business seriously. You have no concept of family life or of a child’s need for stability. How could you after the way you were raised? I’m not blaming you for your deficiencies,’ Maribel told him in a driven undertone. ‘But I won’t apologise for my need to protect Elias from the damage that you could do.’ Leonidas was pale with fury, his bronzed skin stretched taut over his superb bone structure. ‘What do you mean—deficiencies?’
  46. 46. ‘Elias is very precious. What have you got to give him but money? He needs an adult who’s willing to put him first, to look after him, but what you cherish most is your freedom. The freedom to do whatever you like when you like would be the first thing you would lose as a father and you wouldn’t stick the course for five minutes—’ ‘Try me!’ Leonidas shot back at her in wrathful challenge. ‘Who are you to judge me? You have never lived outside your little academic soap-bubble! By what right do you call me irresponsible?’ Although she was drawn and tense, Maribel lifted her head high. ‘I’ve got more right than anyone else I know. You never once called to ask if I was okay after that night we spent together!’ ‘Why would I have?’ Leonidas growled like a bear. Maribel almost flinched. She refused to allow herself to react in a more personal way and she tucked the hurt of that cruelly casual dismissal away for future reference. ‘Because it would have been the responsible thing to do when you knew there was a risk of a pregnancy,’ she informed him in a wooden tone. Leonidas swore in vehement Greek at that retaliation and shot her a censorious glance. ‘You walked out on me,’ he ground out. Maribel thought of what had really happened that morning and inwardly squirmed. Walking out would have been the sensible, dignified option, but it was not actually what she had done. He didn’t know that, though, and she felt that that fact was none of his business so long after the event. She did not have much pride to conserve over the episode, but what she did have she planned to hang onto. ‘It was for you to contact me when you learned that you had conceived,’ Leonidas delivered in harsh addition.
  47. 47. ‘You didn’t deserve that amount of consideration,’ Maribel told him without hesitation. Lethal scorn hardened his darkly handsome features. ‘I didn’t phone—is that what this is all about? So you try to punish me by refusing me contact with my son?’ Maribel looked steadily back at him, her violet blue eyes defiant in the face of that put- down. ‘Don’t you dare try to twist what I said. Be honest with yourself. Do you really want the hassle of a child in your life?’ Only forty-eight hours earlier, Leonidas would have responded with an unqualified negative to that question. Now a whole new dimension had to be considered. He could not get the image of the smiling little boy in the photograph out of his mind. But his other responses were much more aggressive, because when he looked back at Maribel he could never recall feeling more angry or alienated from her. She had judged him and found him wanting and nobody had ever dared to do that before. The office door sprang open without warning. ‘Why on earth is there a crowd of people hanging around outside?’ demanded the older woman with whom Maribel shared the office. ‘Oh—sorry. I didn’t realise that you had someone with you. Am I interrupting?’ ‘Not at all,’ Leonidas murmured impassively. ‘I was about to leave.’ Gripped by a giant wave of frustration, Maribel watched Leonidas depart. She could not understand why she should feel bereft when he walked away. Her office was no place for emotional discussions. He needed to think about what she had said, as well. Her hand crept up to her lower lip, which was still swollen from the erotic heat of his. It was so typical of Leonidas to try and blur serious issues with sex. He could handle sex. He could handle it beautifully. It was the emotional stuff he couldn’t and wouldn’t deal with. Wide-eyed, her colleague hurried back to the doorway. ‘Good heavens, was that who I think it is? Was that actually Leonidas Pallis?’
  48. 48. A mass of speculative faces peered in at Maribel, as though she were a rare animal on display in a zoo for the first time… CHAPTER FOUR MARIBEL could not sleep that night, or indeed during the night that followed. How long was it since she had fallen in love with Leonidas Pallis? Almost seven years. It sounded like a prison term and had often felt like one, while she’d struggled to feel something —anything—for a more suitable man. Her heart might as well have been locked away in a cell, for neither intelligence nor practicality had exercised the smallest influence over what she felt. She had done her utmost to get over him. She knew his every flaw and failing. She did not respect him as a person. Yet helpless sympathy for a male so divorced from his emotions that he did not even recognise grief had led to her lowering her guard after her cousin’s funeral. And, to the conception of the son she adored. Who are you to judge me? She was still pondering that question at dawn on the second day after his latest visit. As she had not expected to see Leonidas again, it had not occurred to her that he would ever find out about Elias. Now that he had, everything had changed and she had been too slow to recognise that truth. Suddenly she was being forced to justify the decisions she had made and she was no longer confident that she had the right to deny Elias all contact with his father. Accustomed as she was to keeping her own counsel, she felt that she was too emotionally involved and that it might be wise to ask for a second opinion from someone she could trust to be discreet. Later that morning, Maribel went over to see Ginny Bell and finally told the older woman who had fathered her son. For the space of an entire minute, the older woman simply stared back at her with rounded eyes of shock and disbelief. ‘Leonidas Pallis? The Greek billionaire who’s always plastered all over the celebrity magazines? Imogen’s ex?’
  49. 49. Red as a beetroot, Maribel nodded affirmation. ‘My goodness. You do put new meaning into that saying about being a dark horse!’ Ginny exclaimed. ‘Leonidas Pallis is really Elias’ father?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I never liked to ask who he was, when you didn’t seem to want to talk about it.’ Ginny shook her head in wonderment over what she had just been told. ‘I must be frank. I’m gobsmacked. What prompted you to suddenly tell me about this now?’ ‘Leonidas has just found out about Elias and he wants to see him.’ Maribel compressed her lips. ‘I’ve been saying no.’ Ginny grimaced. ‘Surely that’s not a good idea, Maribel. Is it wise to get on the wrong side of a man that powerful?’ ‘He is very annoyed about my attitude,’ Maribel conceded unhappily. ‘If someone told you that you couldn’t see your child, wouldn’t you be angry?’ the older woman prompted wryly. ‘Try to put yourself in his shoes and be fair.’ ‘That’s not easy,’ Maribel confided chokily. ‘But why run the risk of turning Leonidas into an enemy? Wouldn’t that be more dangerous? I’ve heard some heart-rending stories about children being snatched away by disaffected foreign fathers.’ Ginny could have said nothing more guaranteed to make Maribel’s blood run cold in her veins. ‘Don’t scare me, Ginny.’ ‘You’re playing with some pretty strong emotional issues here. That’s why I would try to be reasonable, if I were you.’
  50. 50. ‘But I think that Leonidas is just curious. I don’t see him getting that involved with Elias,’ Maribel said tautly. ‘Leonidas has never been that fussed about kids.’ The older woman subjected her to a shrewd appraisal. ‘You really know Leonidas Pallis very well, don’t you?’ Maribel lowered defensive lashes. ‘Reasonably well.’ ‘Then hang onto that bond before you lose it,’ Ginny advised ruefully. ‘For your son’s sake. Some day, Elias will want to know all about his background and he will want to know his father, as well. Making decisions on Elias’ behalf is a big responsibility.’ Shamed into reconsidering her stance, but with all her misgivings still very much in place, Maribel went straight back home and phoned Leonidas on his private number. Leonidas answered the call. The instant he heard her voice, he gave his PA a signal that his meeting with his legal team was on hold until he finished the dialogue. ‘Maribel,’ he murmured smooth and soft. ‘All right, you can see Elias. I was being unreasonable. Just let me know when you would like to see him.’ A wave of satisfaction engulfed Leonidas and a rare smile banished the cold set of his lean, strong features. ‘I’ll send a car to pick you up in an hour. Okay?’ Maribel swallowed. The immediacy of that request disconcerted her and she would’ve preferred to stage the meeting on familiar ground. On the other hand, Ginny’s warnings had unnerved her and she did not want to be awkward. ‘It’s short notice, but I don’t work on Thursdays, so that will be fine.’ ‘You’ve pleased me, glikia mou,’ Leonidas imparted with approval. ‘I’ll see you later.’